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Medellin, Colombia: Why inclusivity and innovation are sparking urban renewal (Part 1)

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Medellin is a city that has achieved a lot in the last 20 years. It has transcended its difficult past and become a better integrated, more accessible and safer place to live than before. It is no longer the ‘no-go’ city for Colombians, tourists and businesses that it once was.

Today Medellin is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a good transport system that is clean, efficient and integrated. The city’s public spaces are well-used, accessible and contribute to uplifting the areas in which they have been developed. Citizens enjoy greater access – via the city’s integrated transit routes – to neighbouring communities, libraries, schools and other public facilities like community parks and educational institutions than previously.

Neighbourhoods, particularly in the city’s poorer areas, are safer than they were before.

The city’s murder rate, for example, has been reduced significantly over the last two decades. Prior to the death of the infamous drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the subsequent dismantling of Medellin’s drug cartels, the city had a murder rate of approximately 381 homicides per 100,000. The New York Times estimates that “[i]n New York City that would add up to an almost inconceivable 32,000 murders a year”. By 2007 following improved law enforcement support and the upgrade of various public spaces and facilities, the murder rate had been reduced dramatically to 34 per 100,000. Since 2007, however, this figure has fluctuated and – while it significantly below what it was in the early 1990s – the incidence of violent crime remains a concern for the people of Medellin.

I recently spent some time exploring Medellin and had the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of the city’s urban renewal programme.

I was impressed by how many public spaces in Medellin are functional spaces. These vibrant spaces fit into and uplift the neighbourhoods in which they are located. They have been created for and with the people who use them in mind. These spaces are well used and well maintained by the municipality and the people who use them.

I was equally struck by how much collective ownership the citizens of Medellin have in their public spaces and facilities, particularly given the city’s history. “You will see that the Metro trains are always clean, for example. They are our trains. We use them everyday and we therefore take good care of them. You won’t see anyone eating or drinking on them. We don’t like to see our trains and public spaces in a mess,” says Carlos, a young professional who lives in Medellin and who I met in the city’s El Poblado neighbourhood. It was refreshing to see people who are connected to and proud of their city.

The urban renewal of Medellin has sparked a paradigm shift amongst those living and those visiting the city (me included!). The citizens of Medellin are taking a greater interest in their city than before. Visiting the city and chatting to people who live and work in the area, one gets a strong sense of what collective ownership looks and feels like.

So how did Medellin become the city it is today? What steps were taken to upgrade the city’s public spaces and facilities? How was a culture of transformation created in a city once notorious for its violent crime?

Inspired by my experience of Medellin, I explored this a bit further to get some answers and identified two key ingredients that have contributed to Medellin’s incredible renewal: inclusivity and innovation.

INCLUSIVITY

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Central to the development and implementation of Medellin’s urban renewal programme is the view that new or improved infrastructure innovatively designed in line with a vision shared by all relevant stakeholders and supported by appropriate law enforcement measures can be used to build better social cohesion and reduce the incidence of violent crime in an area.

If Medellin’s urban renewal programme was to succeed, it had to be inclusive. It had to connect all stakeholders around a common social development agenda in a very real sense. This was sought in a number of ways.

It was important to the success of Medellin’s urban renewal programme that people previously excluded from participating in their city – typically those living in Medellin’s poorer and more inaccessible areas – were central to and included in the development and renewal of their neighbourhoods.

Two decades ago, the city’s poorer areas – typically located high up on the hills that surround Medellin’s CBD away from the city’s transport system – had increasingly high levels of crime and unemployment. People living in these areas faced high barriers to participating socially and economically in their city and took little or no ownership in improving their city.

The expansion and continued neglect of the city’s poorer areas therefore had to be avoided wherever possible. Instead, poorer areas needed to be upgraded so that people living in these areas could actively enjoy being a part of their city.

Medellin’s urban renewal programme – led by an independent commercial entity established by the municipality – was therefore focused primarily on improving the city’s most neglected and more dangerous areas. These areas were identified based on their relative Human Development Index and Quality of Life Survey Index.

It was also important that all stakeholders supported and valued the city’s urban renewal programme. This required all relevant stakeholders – including community members, local specialists, civil society and government – to take ownership not only of the programme outcomes but also of the process followed in reaching those outcomes. A comprehensive process of consultation, co-ordination and communication between all stakeholders was therefore followed at all stages of the programme. This process went a long way in helping all stakeholders to understand and define what role they could play in building safer and better integrated neighbourhoods.

To demonstrate and reinforce the valuable role that citizens and civic organisations can play in developing their neighbourhoods, regular community engagements were held to determine and understand what kinds of communities people wanted to build. This was typically done before any plans were drawn up and throughout the development and implementation of those plans. These engagements were also informed by inputs received from local architects.

During the implementation phases of the programme, efforts were made to use local labour wherever possible. Skills development and training opportunities were also made available to people wanting to improve their skill sets and, in turn, their employability. Steps that further enhanced the inclusive nature of the programme.

Read part 2 on innovation tomorrow.

Additional sources:

  1. http://www.acimedellin.org/medellinlaboratory/descarga/MedellinLabEN.pdf
  2. http://www.currystonedesignprize.com/recipients/2009/transformative_public_works
  3. http://www.sosyalarastirmalar.com/cilt2/sayi8pdf/Blanco_Kobayashi.pdf
  4. http://architectureindevelopment.org/news.php?id=49
  5. http://archleague.org/2013/03/connective-spaces-and-social-capital-in-medellin-by-jeff-geisinger/
  6. http://travel.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/travel/i-just-got-back-from-medellin.html?pagewanted=all